Our early antecedents came to Bloomington as early as the mid 1850’s. In 1856 Big Aaron Livingston and his brother Samuel arrived and soon opened a clothing store. Little Aaron Livingston joined them after serving in the Civil War.
In 1880, Big Aaron took seriously ill. His father, Hirsh, came from Germany and stayed here for two months until his son’s death. Hirsh saw a need for more Jewish worship and education here and asked his sons Meyer and Isaac to bring a Torah from Germany. In 1881 Meyer Livingston arrived with the Torah.
B’nai B’rith Lodge, known as Abraham Lincoln Lodge #190, had existed in Bloomington since 1872, but there still was no Jewish congregation. On the evening of May 14, 1882, a number of Jewish Gentlemen of our city met at the B’nai B’rith Hall for the purpose of organizing a Jewish congregation. The congregation was formed that same year, with Aaron Livingston as its president.
Interested Jews applied for membership, and the original group of members voted on acceptance. Dues were divided into three classes, based upon ability to pay. Wolf Griesham offered the rooms over his shoe store for religious school classrooms. Services were first held in the Boston Shoe Store, and later moved to the basement of the Free Congregational Church (later called the Independent Church and finally named the Unitarian Church). The congregation adopted the reform American Dr. Isaac M. Wise ritual in conducting the services. (The most notable of the rituals was that men worshipped with hats off.) The first service was held on Rosh Hashanah, 1882.
The new congregation was an active one, holding frequent fund-raising affairs to raise money for a building of their own. At a meeting held on April 6, 1883, Maik Livingston offered a donation of $100 toward the building of the temple, providing the congregation was named after Sir Moses Montefiore, the great English philanthropist.
Thus began the drive for the Moorish edifice ultimately constructed at the southeast corner of Monroe and Prairie Streets. The lot cost $2,035. Funds were borrowed, in part from the B’nai B’rith, at an interest of 8%. The estimated building cost was $15,000. The Moorish style, adopted by Reform Jews in Germany, identified the ideology of the congregation and distinguished the building from the Christian churches in Bloomington. Funds were solicited and collected in the amount of $13,000, leaving a debt of only $2,000.
The dedication was held at four o’clock on Friday, May 21, 1889. All members closed their stores to be present. The newspaper coverage of the event the following day described the building as, not only the handsomest and most unique in design of any building in the city, but comparable to the best of any Jewish synagogue in the West. It also noted that this was accomplished by a group of 24 members.
On June 7, 1890, a gas jet, which had served as the eternal light, ignited a fire on the altar. The fire burned so much of the temple’s interior that it had to be completely redecorated. Before the fire, there were many beautiful designs painted on the ceilings and walls. They were not replaced. The pews had been a golden brown and were repainted a dark brown. A picture of the original interior of the sanctuary now hangs in the display case in the current temple’s main hallway.
Beginning in the 1900’s, there was a flow of Jewish families from Russia, Rumania, Hungary and other European countries who practiced Orthodox Judaism. They did not affiliate with the temple in the beginning. They worshipped as a group on the High Holidays and brought in outside rabbis to conduct these services. Many of the women became Sisterhood members, and the children attended the temple religious school. Eventually, most of these early families became members, including the Ticks and the Sterns.
As the years passed, the congregation grew and endured through times of prosperity and financial hardship. There were many years, especially during the thirties and forties, when we could not afford a full-time rabbi. Temple members led services, taught religious school, and maintained the building. Prominent among these peer leaders were Mr. Sam Waldman, Dr. Ben Markowitz, and Mrs. Fannie Ochs. One of our strongest supporters during this time was Dr. Abraham Sachar. Dr. Sachar (who later went on to become the first president of Brandeis) was a professor at the University of Illinois and head of the Hillel chapter. He conducted Friday night services at MMT once a month, always to a packed crowd of congregants and members of the community. Dr. Sachar returned to Bloomington to deliver the dedication address for our current temple.
By the mid 1940’s the temple facilities, particularly for the religious school, were no longer adequate. There was serious thought of building an addition, but careful study of the ground available proved that there was insufficient space. In 1956, under the leadership and perseverance of Rabbi Landau, a movement was launched to build a new and larger temple. In 1957, Sam Stern acquired a large lot in Fairway Knolls and presented it to the congregation for the site of the new temple. Through the determination and dedication of Sam Stern, the building committee, and Oscar Cohn, congregation president, funds were raised and construction was begun in the summer of 1958. The building cost approximately $160,000. The new Moses Montefiore Temple was completed in the summer of 1959 and the dedication was held on the weekend of February 19-21.
The late 1990’s brought a need for even more room. Gene Asbury, original architect of our current building, designed a plan for an expansion. The temple office and the Rabbi’s study were enlarged. An additional waiting room for visitors was added. The size of the library was doubled to provide space for a conference area. Extensive redecorating and landscaping completed this most successful project. A dedication of our beautiful new building took place in December 2001.
Our congregation has actively participated in the growth and development of this community for one hundred twenty years. That is a rare and unusual privilege. Its public-spirited members have assumed a significant role in advancing the cultural, educational, and social institutions of our area. May we be inspired by the dedication of our forebears, who, though few in number, established a place of worship and fostered its growth. We look forward to many more years of dedication to our religious goals and service to our fellow citizens.
(Portions condensed or quoted from the Centennial booklet (1982) article written by Hannah Livingston and Thelma Bailen)